‘Joaks’ in ‘Mason + Dixon’: Pynchon’s absurd sincerity

12 Nov
A 1910 illustration of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon surveying the Mason–Dixon line, circa 1763–1768. Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Pynchon’s “Mason & Dixon” — about the historical Mason and Dixon, who surveyed the line between Pennsylvania and Maryland in the 1700s — was singled out by Harold Bloom as the most “sublime” novel of the century. It’s also a fascinating example of how a (the?) postmodern author uses trickery to create the emotional impact we typically desire from fiction.

While it might be Pynchon’s most straightforward novel (read about the reviews here), “Mason & Dixon” is episodic and full of absurdity, including talking dogs, talking clocks, talking shoes and life-threatening cheeses. To help me with the simple facts of the narrative, I have been reading the helpful episode summaries on Wikipedia, which is also where I found links to the original reviews. This blog will be my reading journal, commenting as I go.

1: Latitudes and Departures

Part One comprises the first 25 chapters, mainly concerning Mason and Dixon’s attempt to record the Transit of Venus. The final chapter concludes with their departure to America to survey the area that would eventually be named for them.

The style of the novel is striking, full of punctuation and diction and misspellings that imitate 18th-century prose. Here is one of my favorites:

Mr. LeSpark, one of seemingly thousands of minor characters, rebukes Ethelmer for an irreverent comment about the resurrection of Jesus. LeSpark says, “In this house we are simple folk, and must labor to find much amusement in Joaks about the Savior” (76). Misspelling “jokes” in this sentence is Pynchon’s metajoke — a Joak about a joke. What is the impact? It undercuts the potential sentimentality of the line, the author winking at the reader. And yet it somehow seems to emphasize LeSpark’s own sincerity. I’m thinking, “The poor guy doesn’t know that he can’t spell ‘joke’ correctly,” and yet he doesn’t spell anything; it’s spoken aloud, not written. This kind of postmodern complexity is a hallmark of this novel.

For the purpose of this blog post, I’ll define “Joak” as a Pynchonesque absurdity that leads to, and perhaps makes possible, the sublime, profound moments of sincerity.

I’ll begin in chapter 9, in which Johanna Vroom attempts to seduce Mason by ripping her bodice “in two, or, actually, in twain” (another hilarious anachronism). We are then led into the consciousness of a “Darkling Beetle.” I think the absurdity of this chapter has been established already, no? Then comes the payoff of the Joaks, when we learn the Beetle has never seen rain before, “tho’ now it can feel something undeniably on the way, something it cannot conceive of, perhaps as Humans apprehend God,— as a Force they are ever just about to become acquainted with….” (88). How did we go from ripped bodices and sentient beetles to a sincere observation about the elusiveness of understanding God? Pynchon perhaps believes that sincerity itself is a thing of the past, something only approachable through a faux-18th-century encyclopedic novel. Regardless, he is delivering that sincerity to us now, even in a postmodern age.

There are many examples of Joaks leading to profound observations.

Revd Cherrycoke, our unreliable narrator throughout, tells of an attack on the ship the Seahorse, which he may or not have actually been on, and his young listeners are enthralled. They ask if he swung on a rope with a knife in his teeth, like a pirate?

“Of course. And a pistol in me boot,” the Revd says. He’s lying, of course, but then, isn’t this whole novel — and every novel — a lie? While we’re distracted by this metafictional Joak, the Revd then touches on a touching observation of the nature of children: “One reason Humans remain young so long, compar’d to other Creatures, is that the young are useful in many ways, among them in providing daily, by way of the evil Creatures and Slaughter they love, a Denial of Mortality clamorous enough to allow their Elders release, if only for moments at a time, from Its Claims upon the Attention.” Pynchon’s childishness may serve the same purpose, allowing adult readers an escape into childlike wonder, which serves to press back upon our own mortality.

The Revd (styled throughout the novel with the “d” as a superscript — another anachronistic flourish) continues with his musings on God in a sort of epigraph to chapter 10: “As Planets do the Sun, we orbit ’round God according to Laws as elegant as Kepler’s. God is as sensible to us, as a Sun to a Planet. Tho’ we do not see Him, yet we know where in our Orbits we run,— when we are closer, when more distant,— when in His light and when in shadow of our own making…. We feel as components of Gravity His Love, His Need, whatever it be that keeps us circling” (94).

Here, the Joak is that this is an excerpt from the Revd’s “Unpublished Sermons.” How is this guy a reverend, anyway? And is it still unpublished if it’s in “Mason & Dixon”? Of course, it never existed, but then again, can we ever be sure about the “facts” of history?

While we run around, chasing Pynchon’s tail, we can’t forget the sincere ponderings of the Revd’s words, a searching attempt to understand God. Perhaps they’re unpublished because no one, even then, wanted to read them? And yet, what a lovely metaphor for our relationship to God: always in His orbit, seemingly following a set of laws. Can we truly sense something when we are closer to God and when we are farther apart? If so, how?

Later in this chapter, Mason and Dixon talk about the “mystickal” power of the Transit of Venus, the phenomenon they were sent to observe. It seems that the alignment of planets and stars has also effected a “turning of Soul” among the slave-owning locals. Dixon asks Mason, “have tha felt it,— they’re beginning to talk to their Slaves? Few, if any, beatings” (100). Dixon then talks about “the first time it happened to me” and tries to teach Mason how to experience such a “turning of Soul.” The Joak here is that they fuss about whether to wear a hat or not. Dixon says, “Aye, the Spirit ever fancies a bonny Hat” (101). Now that we have relieved the tension building toward sincerity, we can safely observe their searching for the divine. Dixon continues: “the fairly principal thing, is to sit quietly…?” Mason replies, “That’s it? Sit quietly? And Christ…will come?”

I can’t think of many novels that describe an earnest pursuit of heavenly revelation in such an affecting way. Who would have thought it would come from Pynchon? Mason is so earnest that he “contrives to sit in some shutter’d room, as quietly as he knows how, waiting for a direct experience of Christ” (101). But, like many of us, he can’t sit still very long; “he keeps jumping up, to run and interrupt Dixon, who is trying to do the same, with news of his Progress.” Instead, we descend into slapstick as Mason ends up falling asleep, and his chair “topples with a great Crash,” while Dixon slips out to “see what the Cape Outlawry may be up to” (101). We are left to feel some disappointment that they didn’t achieve their goal of communing with Christ. Would this scene have been possible in contemporary fiction without the Joaks?

In addition to writing about God, Pynchon also writes warmly about love — with the aid of more Joaks. Mason has left his home, including his two young sons, in part because of his grief for his wife, Rebekah. Chapter 16 begins: “Here is what Mason tells Dixon of how Rebekah and he first met. Not yet understanding the narrative lengths Mason will go to, to avoid betraying her, Dixon believes ev’ry word….” (167). With an intro like that, how are we to take the following chapter, as the reader? Here’s what happened to me …

First, the Joak. It’s a long one, lasting about five pages, and it’s all about a crowd gathering to observe, with “Scientifick” curiosity (171), the largest piece of cheese in the kingdom. Mason, apparently not wanting to appear cheesy about his feelings for Rebekah, instead tells about a literal cheese in a fabricated anecdote to Dixon. The details are so authentic that I began to forget that first paragraph of the chapter that had warned me it would be a Joak. It ends when Revd Cherrycoke is interrupted in the telling of Mason’s anecdote (almost certainly, the Revd is putting words in Mason’s mouth as he does so, since he wouldn’t have been present when Mason presumably said it). Now that we are, again, sufficiently dizzy, Pynchon gets to work.

Rebekah as a “plainly visible Phantom attends Mason [ … ] at her most vital and belov’d.” Mason thinks of these appearances as merciful, not as a hauntings. “Is this, like the Bread and Wine, a kindness of the Almighty, sparing him a sight he could not have abided?” (171). This is a fascinating interpretation of the sacrament: Pynchon (or the Revd Cherrycoke) calls the bread and wine “a kindness of the Almighty,” meaning that, by eating and drinking, Jesus’ mourners could be comforted with pleasant reminders of his body and blood, rather than grisly images of his crucifixion. In the same way, Rebekah, who is worshiped in a sense as a ghost, makes Mason feel “pleasurably helpless.”

In the next chapter, Mason departs from the enormous cheese that threatens his life as it rolls down the hill, and instead Mason goes to visit a shrine in which the ear of a former East India Company employee is pickled, preserved as a relic. (What?) Mason is invited to make a wish, which the ear will only listen to, not grant. The initial response to the absurdity of this Joak is Mason’s earnest desire: “that Rebekah live” (179). But we learn in this passage that Mason loves not only Rebekah but also his friend Dixon; he ultimately wishes not for Rebekah but for Dixon’s safety, “For his personal sake, of course, but for my Sanity as well.” He misses Dixon! They’re buddies! And we believe it.

The two men are reunited at the conclusion of Part One, and one little word confirms their friendship: Mason refers to them as “us” (247), and Dixon “Smile[s] acknowledging the Pronoun” (248). They continue their spiritual conversation, as Dixon seems to be consoling Mason over his grief, reassuring him that there is “a part of thy Soul that doesn’t depend on Memories, that lies further than Memories” (253).

That’s chapter 25, but before concluding my responses to Part One, I would be remiss not to mention the greatest passage, which is in chapter 20. Here, Mason visits his children to say goodbye before he leaves for America and his next job, with Dixon. Mason flashes back to his youth, when his father was a baker. Mason once took a nap on a “risen raw Loaf for a pillow,” and the cells in the dough speak to him, saying: “Remember us to your Father” (205). Again, we see the pattern of a Joak followed by a sincere, profound, often theological exploration.

The response to this Joak is another nonstory: Just as Mason’s cheese anecdote was made up, his father “wants” to give Mason some advice about leaving his children behind. He doesn’t give the advice, but if he were to give it, here is what he’d say: “What happens to men sometimes [ … ] is that one day all at once they’ll understand how much they love their children, as absolutely as a child gives away its own love, and the terrible terms that come with that,— and it proves too much to bear, and they’ll not want it, any of it, and back away in fear” (205-206).

Just as the postmodern writer can’t come out and tell us a universal truth, so Mason’s father can’t bring himself to tell his son these difficult truths of fatherhood. And so, Mason leaves his children behind for another years-long expedition, and he doesn’t come to any reconciliation with his own father, either.

And yet, fictionally, Mason’s father “keeps trying.” He adds on to the advice he never gave, this time with a prose poem about the only thing he knows well, which is bread. It also echoes the previous lines about the bread and wine, the relationship between the Father and Son. Mason’s father says: ” ‘Tis all one thing. From field to Mill-stone, to oven. All part of Bread. A Proceeding. There’d be naught to knead or bake without this.’ He gestures toward where the Stones move in their Dumbness and Power,— ‘The Grinding, the Rising, the Baking, at each stage it grows lighter, it rises not only in the Pans but from the Earth itself, being ground to Flour, as Stones are ground to Dust, from that condition taking in water, then being fill’d with Air by Yeasts, finding its way at last to Heat, rising each time, d’ye see, until it be a perfect thing.’ Picking up a Loaf and holding it to his face. Young Mason thinks he is about to eat it.”

These lines are devastating. Encyclopedic, lyrical.

We don’t know whose point of view we are following — the Revd, Mason, Mason’s father, Pynchon — but it doesn’t matter. The Joak has brought us where we want to be: to the sublime, “a perfect thing.”

Pynchon’s big, fat, ‘sublime’ novel: ‘Mason + Dixon’

6 Nov

After reading David Mitchell’s 2010 novel, “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,” I was thinking about why he would set a novel in 1799. The anachronistic dialogue seemed to lend itself to straightforwardness, as compared with the mind-bending “Cloud Atlas,” and I wondered if the same would hold true of another 18th-century “historical” novel by another postmodern genius, Thomas Pynchon.

I’ve tried to read Pynchon more than once, and, every time, I grow weary of the endless wordplay and winks, and I give up. I find it much easier to stick with Richard Powers and Don DeLillo, writers who, like Pynchon, are wrestling with big ideas of art and contemporary life but with more awe, less absurdity.

I bought Pynchon’s 1997 novel, “Mason & Dixon,” years ago, and the most I can say about it is that it looks beautiful on my shelf, it’s 773 pages, and it’s written in 18th-century prose. In light of Mitchell’s book, that last fact was enough to make me pick it up and give it a try. My reaction? I laughed out loud four times in the first three pages. I’m now on page 94, and it is so good that I feel compelled to record and organize my thoughts as I go. Rather than bore my wife and friends with my reactions to a novel they haven’t read — I don’t blame them, considering I waited 23 years to read it myself — I’ll blog about it instead.

If you’ve read it (or even if you haven’t?), I welcome your comments below.

My working theory is that the 18th-century setting allows Pynchon, as it did Mitchell, space to create characters and to write about truth with some of that reverence and awe that appeals to me, while still employing his absurdist postmodern virtuosity.

1997 reviews

The Wikipedia article on “Mason & Dixon” led me to the 1997 reviews, two in the New York Times and one in The Atlantic.

The legendary Michiko Kakutani’s assessment: “It is a book that testifies to his remarkable powers of invention and his sheer power as a storyteller, a storyteller who this time demonstrates that he can write a novel that is as moving as it is cerebral, as poignant as it is daring.”

On the setting, Kakutani wrote: “Perhaps because ”Mason & Dixon’ is loosely based on real historical figures, Mr. Pynchon’s penchant for willful allegorizing is less noticeable in this volume, and his central characters possess an emotional amplitude missing in his earlier books. In the course of the novel Dixon, and Mason especially, become fully fleshed-out people, their feelings, hopes and yearnings made as palpably real as their outrageously comic high jinks.”

I would infer from this that a historical setting may not be enough to amplify the emotions of Pynchon’s characters; Kakutani points out that his characters are based on real people.

(In 2012, Kakutani reiterated her praise: “Fifteen years after it was first published, Thomas Pynchon’s “Mason & Dixon” remains his most emotionally affecting novel and a dazzling, encyclopedic showcase for his talents: his ability to mix the philosophical with the slapstick, the playfully postmodern with the old-fashioned picaresque; his delight in language and narrative sleight of hand; his Swiftian knack for satire; and his storyteller’s ability to fuse history and science and fable with ardor and panache.”)

T.C. Boyle wrote about the novel for the New York Times in 1997 as well, and he agreed with Kakutani about the characters. Mason and Dixon “are Mr. Pynchon’s most complete characters and, in the end, his most sympathetic. One feels for Herbert Stencil or Slothrop and even Benny Profane, but Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon are another sort of character altogether, less figures in a scheme and more substantial, more inspired with the breath of life.”

The playful, anachronistic style of writing creates “a rich stew of accepted and invented history, anecdote, myth and hyperbole. … The method is sublime. It allows for the surveyors’ story to become an investigation into the order of the universe, clockwork deity and all, and yet at the same time to reflect the inadequacy of reason alone to explain the mystery that surrounds us. The haunted world, the suprareal, the ghostly and the impossible have the same valence as the facts of history as we receive them. If the traditional historical novel attempts to replicate a way of life, speech and costume, the post-modernist version seeks only to be just that, a version.”

That verb “allows” is striking. Boyle is making an argument that Pynchon’s style—his form—is the key for the story “to become an investigation” of truth. In other words, without the style, the investigation would be incomplete or ineffective. That’s why this novel is something grander than most novels you will ever encounter.

Bloom’s exclusive club

Is that praise too high? Not according to Harold Bloom, another legendary critic. In a 2009 interview with avclub.com, Bloom says Pynchon is one of four living American writers who have “touched … the sublime” (the same word Boyle used). They are Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo and Pynchon.

Bloom continues: “I don’t know what I would choose if I had to select a single work of sublime fiction from the last century, it probably would not be something by Roth or McCarthy; it would probably be Mason & Dixon, if it were a full-scale book, or if it were a short novel it would probably be The Crying Of Lot 49.”

In other words, “Mason & Dixon” is more sublime than “Ulysses”? As a love of all things James Joyce, I sat up in my chair a little straighter when I read Bloom’s high praise. I felt as though I had stumbled onto the book. Why is it not being talked about more? Then again, neither is “Blood Meridian,” which I agree is one of the masterpieces of the past century. Regardless, that’s another motivation for me writing this blog post: to add a little something to the appreciation of a major work that seems to have been forgotten.

Pynchon’s influence

Novelist Rick Moody, in The Atlantic, gives an insightful survey of not only Pynchon’s writing but his influence, summarized by this: “Pynchon’s accomplishment is that he has found the perfect marriage of form and language for his rendering of Western consciousness.”

Moody then goes on to assess “Mason & Dixon” in the context of Pynchon’s earlier work: “It is self-consciously intent on dealing with American literature on the most ambitious scale imaginable. And it succeeds magnificently.” How does it succeed? What’s relevant to my question on the choice to set the story in the 18th century is Moody’s comment that the action in “Mason & Dixon” is “refreshingly linear.” This, if not the aim, is certainly one result of the form he has chosen.

Is there some value in linearity? Asked another way, is “Mason & Dixon” an improvement over the previous works? Bloom and Boyle think so.

The novel includes conspiracies and nonsense but also philosophical probing into questions like “the invisible forces behind the physical laws,” Moody wrote. One implication is that Pynchon had to reach back in time as far as the 18th century to find characters who could believably still be wrestling with God and enlightenment; the postmodern world has to wink and joke at these kinds of questions to avoid seeming overly eager and therefore stuck in the past. In “Mason & Dixon,” Pynchon leaps in to the past while maintaining his signature fun, thereby achieving both awe and frolic.

That’s not to say that Pynchon is purely straightforward. Like the real Mason and Dixon, Pynchon is an explorer, and his discovery is one of a complicated America. Here is part of Moody’s conclusion to his essay on the novel: “This is just the kind of truth that we often encounter in Pynchon: not simply what it means, finally, to be American — kith and kin of slaveholders and abolitionists, racists and liberals, the powerful and the powerless, the dispossessed and the rapacious, the oppressed and the oppressors — but that the boundary lines that have been surveyed to separate our American dichotomies, the boundaries of rhetoric and philosophy, are arbitrary, tentative, unwritten in human nature.”

Impressed vs. entertained

Bloom believed that “Mason & Dixon” stood the test of time, but not everyone did. In 2017, Newsweek’s Alexander Nazaryan wrote for the New York Times: “Returning to ‘Mason & Dixon’ nearly 15 years after I had first stuffed it into my messenger bag was like encountering an old flame and wondering where the flame had gone. The novel thrums with genius, but I was more frequently impressed than entertained. I was even less frequently jolted with the kind of truths about our intractable nation I wanted — no, needed — to hear in this time of political tumult. Returns on investment should have been higher. It’s a crass way of putting it, but we live in a crass age.”

I am revisiting this blog post several days later, after having read part one of the novel. I’ll start a new post with some of my reading/writing notes. But it’s fitting to end on Nazaryan’s review because I do see his point. Is the novel a virtuoso guitar solo, a show-off piece devoid without any human connection? This is why I haven’t stuck with Pynchon in the past, and I did get some of that feeling in part one, but overall, I find myself looking forward to the next block of time when I can read again. So, he has me hooked. “Mason & Dixon” is the closest reading experience to “Ulysses” that I have encountered, and that does bring with it some drawbacks, but, as with “Ulysses,” this novel is worthy not only of reading but of studying. In future blog post(s), I’ll explore sincerity, anachronisms, misspellings and capitalizations, metafiction.

My favorite songs of 2018

29 Dec

Screen Shot 2018-12-29 at 8.55.41 PM

Troye Sivan (photo from http://www.troyesivanshop.com)

New releases on Spotify guided most of my listening this year, with some additional exploring on other people’s lists of top songs, on Rolling Stone articles and articles on Pitchfork. Throughout the year, I created a “Best of” playlist, and I found myself putting some of them on repeat and/or scrolling to some of them and skipping others. Here are the top dozen that were my favorites of the year:

1. “Somebody to Love,” Troye Sivan

The remake of Freddie Mercury’s classic from Queen was a song I put on repeat on more days than one. Troye Sivan, who became famous first as a YouTuber and has some acting credits to his credit, infuses a new kind of longing into Mercury’s song. It’s been stripped of bounciness and now has some darkness. But it communicates even more effectively than the original.

2. “no tears left to cry,” Ariana Grande

In the first 30 seconds of this song, Ariana Grande goes from soul to dance to rap to pop. It’s a song of fun and optimism like any good pop song, but it has gravitas because it was written in response to a shooting that occurred at her concert in Manchester in 2017. Kudos to Grande for using her music for something positive.

3. “Lost in Japan,” Shawn Mendes

I’m not a big fan of Shawn Mendes’ previous work, but this new album was much less melodramatic. Starting with, “All it’d take is one flight/ We’d be in the same time zone,” this song is a cliche-free love story. When you want to see someone, how far would you fly? For Mendes, being “a couple hundred miles from Japan tonight” is close enough to take a detour. Great rhythm in the song, too.

4. “If I Were You (feat. Keith Urban),” Jillian Jacqueline

Jillian Jacqueline has no bio on Spotify or on her website. She has no page on Wikipedia. But somehow, she connected with Keith Urban for this unique love song. It’s a breathtaking story about a woman who is telling a man to run away, but keep her in mind: “If I were you I would be running, I would be leaving now/ If I were you I wouldn’t look back/ Oh, but I want you to/ Keep me in the back of your mind/ Maybe call me up sometime/ In a couple-a years if you haven’t found somebody new/ That’s what I would do/ If I were you.” You can tell the woman loves him but doesn’t trust herself or feel good enough about herself to deserve love. And Keith Urban probably deserves to be on this list for a few of his own songs (“Same Heart,” “Coming Home”) from his 2018 album, but I’m cheating by including him here instead. And don’t miss Jacqueline’s song, “Tragic.”

5. “Sky Full of Song,” Florence + the Machine

A song that builds, a beautiful and honest voice, vivid and mysterious images in the lyrics. I found myself drawn to this line: “And I want you so badly/ But you could be anyone,” for its complicated insight into desire. Singer Florence Welch said the song was about performing as a musician, which is “celestial but somehow lonely.”

6. “Velvet Elvis,” Kacey Musgraves

Musgraves’ album “Golden Hour” is one of my favorites of 2018. She has a silky voice, never trying too hard. She’s too cool for school, lots of jokes in the lyrics, but also a confidence that makes you want to hear what she’s got on her mind. “Velvet Elvis” is a love song about a boyfriend but also about a tacky painting that is in some ways better than any boyfriend. She sings, “You’re my velvet Elvis,/ I ain’t never gonna take you down/ Making everybody jealous/ when they step into my house/ Soft to the touch,/ feels like love.”

7. “I Don’t Know,” Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney still sounds bright and strong at age 76. The world has grown up listening to him, and he continues to deliver new music. He made my list with this song, which includes this lyric: “I try to love you/ Best as I can/ But you know that I’m only a man/ Why am I going wrong, I don’t know.”

8. “I’ll Be There,” Jess Glynne

Jess Glynne’s powerful voice gives this song depth and texture. Her 2018 album “Always In Between” debuted at No. 1 in the United Kingdom, but it didn’t get nearly as much attention in the United States for some reason, peaking at 109 on the Billboard 200.

9. “Rich (radio edit),” Maren Morris

Maren Morris is the queen of attitude, and this song is a three-minute dis of her ex-boyfriend whose promises aren’t worth anything. The song is super fun because of the clever lyrics packed with alliteration, like this: “Me and Diddy drippin’ diamonds like Marilyn.” She’s ostentatiously hip-hop in a country world, pushing boundaries with both hands. Does this song belong in a 2018 playlist? Well, according to Spotify the clean version came out as a single in 2018, so I’ll go with it. (The album “Hero” came out in 2017.)

10. “Psycho,” Post Malone

This song is brilliant for its specificity. All of these cryptic lines are references to things in his life, and I love how it’s both opaque and honest. And, even more than that, the way the words roll around and bump into each other are modern poetry.

11. “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts),” The Smashing Pumpkins

Another band that’s been at it for a long time and still delivering. This song is apocalyptic, a rant in bleak images. This is one of my favorite lines: “Row like a felon/ Drown like a captain’s son/ And say “How long can this go on?”

12. “Attention,” Charlie Puth

Like Mendes, Charlie Puth’s prior work didn’t appeal to me. But I listened to his new album from start to finish one night, alone on the beach, in my headphones. It was a great way to spend 44 minutes. This song has a knock-you-over bass line.

‘Yah Hey’: Vampire Weekend’s theological rock ‘n’ roll still resonates

19 Sep


Ezra Koenig wore an all white suit during the Miami show of the “Father of the Bride” tour in August 2019.

During an interview with Malcolm Gladwell on the podcast “Broken Record,” Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig says he used a lyrical soundboard for the first time on the 2019 album “Father of the Bride,” and the advice he got was to “go a little more ‘Yah Hey'” with some of the songs. In other words, Koenig explained, stay true to the themes and the vibe of “Yah Hey” because that’s really what Vampire Weekend is all about.

“Yah Hey,” a track on the 2013 album “Modern Vampires of the City,” is a singularity in the genre. While most popular music is about falling in and out of love with another person, this song is about falling in and out of love with God. What other band will fill Madison Square Garden, like Vampire Weekend did on Sept. 6, 2019, and sing a song like that?

The form of “Yah Hey” is a prayer, in which the speaker addresses God as “sweet thing,” “you saint,” and “good God.” He tells God that the world doesn’t love Him; the speaker says he could never love God either. And yet, “I can’t help but feel that I’ve made some mistake.”

Then there is a spoken bridge that paints a picture of the speaker at a festival, and as he listens to two songs (one a reggae song called “Israelites” by Desmond Dekker and the other “19th Nervous Breakdown” by the Rolling Stones) he feels the presence of God. And, quoting the famous last line of James Joyce’s story “The Dead,” the speaker says his soul “swoons.” (Check out the contributors’ enlightening comments at Genius.com.)

Who else is writing rock songs about Joycean religious epiphanies?

MVOTC and cave paintings

The album “Modern Vampires of the City,” which won the alternative rock Grammy, is a masterpiece. It’s got intricate and varied production quality, it has ear-candy melody and rhythm, and it has uncommon poetic depth in the lyrics.

Just about every track on MVOTC is full of references to God. Like the song “Yah Hey,” the album confronts the seeming paradox of how faith and doubt coexist in a human heart. It’s tapping on the same kind of emotions that inspired — compelled — ancient people to paint on the walls of caves. Listening to this album, I don’t think about Vampire Weekend’s history with the press, and I don’t think about Ezra Koenig’s cleverness: I think about my own faith and doubt, my own love of God and my own confusion. That is the power of great art.

I happen to have a strong faith in God, so these themes are on my mind a lot: How does God interact with me? What does it really mean to love God, a being I have never seen? All of that also enhanced my experienced of seeing Vampire Weekend live in concert for the first time.

Live in Miami

In August, I drove to Miami, Florida, to see Vampire Weekend perform. I brought three of my children, all of whom have memorized large portions of “Father of the Bride,” which has become a member of the family, even more so than MVOTC.

At the concert, we cheered, we sang along.

When the band played “Yah Hey,” I felt in my bones the questions Koenig was asking. I thought about my own relationship with God. I wondered what my children thought about Him, and how they would answer those questions for themselves. But I also realized that sometimes the questions aren’t answered — at least not right away. It was enough, during “Yah Hey,” to feel my soul swoon.


The best songs of 2017: Or, my soundtrack for doing the dishes

5 Jan

As in previous years, in 2017 I listened to new releases most weeks as they came out on Spotify. Most of the time, I didn’t like anything that I heard, but I dragged 43 of my favorites over to my Best Of playlist (some of them I later deleted when I found that I was regularly skipping them). I also listened to several critics’ compilations of the songs of the year to see what I had missed, and I’m glad I did because they either reminded me of music I hadn’t given much of a chance, or they exposed me to new albums for the first time. Some of the albums were admirable for their creativity or lyrics or production, but they weren’t all that enjoyable to listen to, so they didn’t make my list. Here are the highlights of the songs that did:

1. “If We Were Vampires,” Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Jason Isbell has always seemed a bit boring to me, but I really listened to the lyrics on this new album, and “If We Were Vampires” is brilliant poetry.  This is a terribly sad love song about taking advantage of the moments you have together. After listening to it, I feel inspired to “work hard till the end of my shift.”

2. “Hold Me Close,” Overcoats

Maybe the catchiest song of the year. Perfect harmonies. Also, I watched a couple of interview videos with this duo, and their chemistry makes me like their music even more.

3. “Provider,” Frank Ocean

These impressionistic lyrics. I mean, who can make sense of them? Not me, but I memorized some of them and couldn’t stop listening to this song. It’s subtle in its structure, and the way the drums enter the song is surprising and inevitable.

4. “About a Bruise,” Iron & Wine

The tone of Sam Beam’s voice is so rich, and it blends perfectly with the tones of the bassy folk ensemble in this song. The repeated lines and harmonies also made it one of my favorites this year.

5. “Songbird,” Cory Chisel, Adriel Denae

My wife went to high school with Cory Chisel, and I’m glad because otherwise I might never have heard of him. This is a singer-songwriter who belongs on a best of list, and I hope he someday gets the audience he deserves. “Songbird” is a gentle song with haunting harmonies.

6. “Supercut,” Lorde

Lorde’s new album, “Melodrama,” was on everyone’s best-of lists, and for good reason. I have been eagerly awaiting this album, after her brilliant 2013 album, “Pure Heroine.” The new one is also great, and “Supercut” is one of the catchiest songs. She is an intense, passionate singer. (A few other songs on this album are also worthy of being on this list. Some are explicit, but you can hear the full album edited if you click on “1 More Release” at the bottom of the play list on the album.)

7. “My Poor Heart,” The Glorious Sons

This song is one that I would never have discovered if I didn’t click on so many duds in the Spotify new releases. I hadn’t ever heard of this band before, but they have snappy, smart, narrative lyrics sung by a dynamic front man and some driving guitars that are used without overdoing anything. It’s smart hard rock that always sounds like it’s on the verge of disaster.

8. “Bad Liar,” Selena Gomez

An intoxicating voice, used with restraint, almost a whisper at times. Sweet and searching. One of the most compelling female pop stars.

9. “Boston,” Brendan Fletcher

Here’s another artist who apparently isn’t on the radar of any critics. Brendan Fletcher was a contender on The Voice, and maybe that makes him someone people don’t take seriously, but this song captivates me. He has this raspy voice (maybe there’s a trend toward raspy voices on my list) and some simple but evocative lyrics that transport me.

10. “Old Flames (Can’t Hold A Candle To You),” Kesha, Dolly Parton

I listened to Kesha’s new album when it came out, but despite her obvious talent, I didn’t love the first several songs, so I gave up. When I saw her on so many best-of lists, I decided to revisit the album, and I discovered this song late in the album: a duet with the Dolly Parton, for whom the song was originally written–by Kesha’s mother, Pebe Sebert. This remake has a new edge to it, and Dolly Parton’s now-frail voice is great as harmony to Kesha’s raw power.

Other songs I liked a lot:

“The Mother,” Brandi Carlile

“Everything Now,” Arcade Fire

“Do Not Disturb,” Drake (edited)

“Intentions (feat. Dan Caplen),” Macklemore (edited)

“There Are Many Ways To Say I Love You,” Sylvan Esso

“Future Me,” Echosmith

“Love,” Lana Del Rey

“Getaway Car,” Taylor Swift